Fear under the flag

America is united more by a sense of loss and fear for the future than it is by defiant patriotism. An Englishwoman reports from Washington DC.

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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29 September was meant to be a day of street battles and disruption in Washington DC.

For months, police had been warning residents that over 100,000 demonstrators would travel to America’s capital for a major anti-globalisation protest against the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – a protest that would make those at Seattle and Geneva look like a picnics.

But then the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were attacked – and everything changed overnight.

Organisers called off the demonstration in the aftermath of 11 September. Suddenly, few had the stomach to fight running street battles with the police. Many would-be demonstrators argued that this was a time to show unity rather than dissent on the streets of DC. On 29 September a few thousand demonstrators went ahead with a march, but their message was for peace, not anti-globalisation. After all the build-up and hype it turned out to be a small, peaceful non-event.

The demise of protest against the WTO illustrates how much the USA has changed in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. Politicians of all persuasions are calling for national unity and patriotism. Less than a month ago, George W Bush was a fumbling president with little legitimacy presiding over a sinking economy. Now, presidential approval ratings are at an all-time high, with polls showing that 64 percent of the people trust him to do the right thing.

It almost feels as if America is already at war. Dissent and even loose talk have been all but silenced. It was not just the protest in Washington that was cancelled – Congress, too, decided to suspend all controversial bills and debates in the forthcoming session in order to close ranks in the fight against terrorism.

In post-11 September America, academics and journalists face new restrictions. A long-time professor was disciplined for joking that ‘anybody who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote’. Some columnists have been fired from provincial newspapers for criticising Bush’s failure to return to Washington on the day of the attacks.

The pressure to conform comes both from the public and from the powers that be. TV stations and Hollywood are holding back TV programmes and movies deemed unsuitable for the current crisis, claiming that they are acting in accordance with the public’s wishes. But at least one major TV network faced more direct pressure: ABC cancelled Bill Maher’s satirical show Politically Incorrect, after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced Maher, arguing that at times like this Americans ‘need to watch what they say’.

While dissent is on the way out, American patriotism suddenly seems back in vogue. It is no exaggeration to say that the Stars and Stripes is everywhere. Many of my neighbours – who would never have dreamed of flying the US flag in the past – now claim it has ‘lost its stigma’ and are sporting it everywhere from their frontyards to their cars to their t-shirts.

Yet behind the sea of flags and conformity, everything is not quite as it seems. In many ways, the national unity is more apparent than real. Some commentators have compared the new patriotic wave to the mood that gripped the nation after the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor in 1941. But this comparison is inappropriate – after Pearl Harbor there was a real sense of national unity because there was a clear consensus about what the government and the people should do. Today, there is no agreement about how the nation should respond.

The wave of patriotism has not translated into hard support for hard-hitting military action. Despite initial reports, army recruitment offices have been surprised at the lack of new recruits since 11 September. Newspaper columns and editorials have been more concerned that the wrong people will fall victim to America’s response than with expressing a clear line on how the president should proceed. And many Americans now fearful about what might happen next – be it biological warfare, or more deadly terrorist attacks.

This is not like the 1940s. Today, Americans have adopted the Stars and Stripes not so much as a symbol of defiance against an aggressor but as an emblem for their grief and mourning for what happened. Many people express a vague desire for revenge, but there is more to the flag-waving than that: it has become one of the ways that ordinary Americans can feel as if they are part of the current crisis.

America is united, but not in defiance – it is united by its sense of loss and its fear for the future.

Read on:

Fear goes sky-high, by Jennie Bristow

Growing up scared, by Jennie Bristow

‘Weeping for everything’ by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: After 11 September

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Topics Politics


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